Within the past few years - starting in 2000 with printed notices at the Arcata Co-op registers, rallying the troops - there has been a potent local reaction against genetically-modified (GMO) foods. Well, the Co-op has a bad record for consumer-friendly action (as opposed to decisions that are motivated by its directors' narrow concerns). Was this truly concern for the environment, or a knee-jerk response?
There is a lot of anti-corporate sentiment around, much of it justified: Surely no one is convinced that most GMO research is being done for the public good. But science, like it or not, is dependent on funding, and banning study because we despise the funding source simply means research will not get done. And one thing that seems obvious is the need for more research. Cutting off government funds is reminiscent of the Bush Administration's ban on stem cell research, dependence on faith rather than science-based reasoning.
Food is an international issue, as controversial as the struggles between opposing theocracies of states such as India and Pakistan, nations that, whatever their differences, are welcoming of anything that can help feed their millions. We may indeed have the new food technology that can save them. But if so, it is tied up in an enigma of protectionist laws, corporate might, and cynical political power, a package in which Left and Right happily serve their own interests at the expense of world hunger. And I'm still left wondering what a sensible, non-ideological position might be. But ideology is here, whether we like it or not, and GMO is in the hands of some very powerful companies like Monsanto. That doesn't thrill me.
The BBC World Service a few years back had a panel game show called Inspiration, about "current inventions." There were a number of possible experiments described, without advocacy. Among them were the implications of GMO substitution of a kangaroo's stomach bacteria for those in domestic cattle (thus vastly reducing the methane released into the atmosphere). It posed such questions to a panel of scientists and science writers in a kind of "who can guess what might be the result of this research?" fashion.
It was an entertaining view of current scientific possibilities, all pretty innocent and unsophisticated relative to American panel shows. But slick or not, it was fascinating, in its gentle plodding BBC fashion. And while the scientists took no position, the consensus clearly assumed that GMO is capable of doing good. Well, that's worth considering. So I start from an assumption that evil scientists working for venal corporations is not the whole story.
In search of just what ills genetically modified foods might cause, I log onto a SCOPE Forum (Science Controversies Online Partnerships in Education). SCOPE is sponsored by UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A forum under its aegis ought to be a voice of sanity. But it's not a colloquium, more of a debating society. Everyone is either passionately for or against GMO.
Senthil Subramanian (a biologist from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) sees GMOs as a way to provide food and dietary needs to the Indian subcontinent:
"Farmers get better yields and their profits increase because of the reduction in cost of cultivation. Consumers get good quality food that is free from chemical residues, which keeps them healthy. The technology opens up several new markets and thus helps the business community. Governments and health organizations reap benefits in the form of easier production of vaccine fruits and nutritious crops. The chemical pesticide industry could lose business because of the reduced use of their products by farmers. Nobody has anything to lose as long as adequate awareness is created among farmers and industry about the precautions and potential dangers."
I don't know; is that a simplistic answer from the Multinationals, or an ingenuous one from a concerned Asian scientist?
On the same site, Katherine DiMatteo is of the opposite persuasion (she heads a lobby called Organic Trade Association, so her interests are not the public's but those who fund her):
"The big biotechnology companies are the ones who benefit from the products of GMOs. They have a vested interest in selling their products to the world. They also are taking steps to make farmers more dependent on them for their seeds and chemicals through developments such as the 'terminator' and 'traitor' technologies. Terminator technology renders crops sterile after one growing season. Traitor technology makes crops 'commit suicide' unless the farmer sprays a particular chemical on them. Certainly the developers of these products are not putting farmers first."
While terminator and traitor seeds seem unqualifiedly bad, they have no intrinsic link to genetic modification; in fact we could make them illegal, and there would still be infinite possibilities for GMO crops. So that's a non-sequitur, a scary connecting of two different things. I don't need to think about that one: It's an attempt to frighten the public.
Now, when I think "organic," I think organic farmers, and the Arcata Farmers' Market, and the incredibly wonderful produce they have every summer. It is better looking, better tasting, and frankly I don't even care if it's healthier. These are friends and people we patronize, and I find it hard to associate them with a lobbying operation that practices scare tactics.
However, fear has been successfully used by Greenpeace and the European Greens in their battle against modified foods. Much of Europe thinks that GMO is a menace to world ecology, a plague loosed on the natural self-regulation of the biosystem. "The war against Nature has to end," says Britain's Prince Phillip. "And we are going to stop it."
Yet even its most enthusiastic advocates agree that organic farming can't possibly feed the US, to say nothing of the world. Organic is not a "Global Concept," it's a personal choice that we - here in the rich soil of the Northern California Coast, for example - are privileged to make. It is not a choice in the rest of the world.
Yet starvation far away is starvation we don't have to deal with.
Why is it automatic that genetic modification is not organic? Using "heirloom" seeds is in itself a form of genetic selection. And farmers have been selectively modifying food plants since before written history. There is not one single thing we eat that hasn't been modified. You know how big tomatoes were before we started modifying them? About the size of a marble. Is a plant perfectly natural if its genes are formed over generations of selective breeding, but polluted and dangerous if those same genes are shot into the cell walls with a tungsten-coated gene gun?
"Organic" seems no longer to have the meaning of "grown without pesticides or inorganic chemicals," but has become a buzzword. (If you read my column on artisan cheeses, you will recall that the Oregon dairy that provides milk for Rogue Creamery's blue cheeses can't get organic certification because they refuse to kill sick cows, instead removing them from the herd, treating them with antibiotics and only returning them when they are fully recovered.) What organic means to me is food not factory-farmed for volume yield, transportability and shelf life, but food grown with special attention. And it's the special attention, and consequent flavor, that I care about. Is it "certified organic?" If the farmer used a sulfur solution in March to control mildew, he would no longer get the certification. I couldn't care less. Hey, it's food, not a religion!
Except it is, unfortunately, a religion. And those who practice it as a world-wide dogma often fail to keep in mind that we are privileged to live in the wealthiest nation in the world, where many of us can exercise free choice of what we eat. Organic food is an option for which we pay a premium. For most humans on Planet Earth, there is no such option, and never will be, in our lifetime.
If advances made by genetic scientists are great, the political opposition to such research in the developed countries has never been stronger. The current political climate - turning off the spigot for research by U.S. scientists and farmers, whose collaboration is so necessary precisely to avoid "Frankenfood" kinds of problems - is an abdication of our role in
the World Community. It is Luddite and it is smug and it is selfish.
"You have these two giants locked in a horrible battle," says a New Yorker article. "The fight may destroy Monsanto, and it might even hurt Greenpeace in the long run. But the real casualties are truth and the poor."
NEXT: Meat from cattle farms is inefficient and environmentally harmful. So are carnivores doomed?
McKinleyville foodie Joseph Byrd teaches music at College of the Redwoods.